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It’s okay to speak softly (big stick optional), according to Susan Cain, author of the bestselling book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” Cain, a former attorney and self-proclaimed introvert, has written about the psychology of introversion for a variety of publications including the New York Times and Bloomberg Businessweek. Her TED talk this past February argued that introverts (the naturally quiet and reserved) have unique gifts to share with the largely extroverted world around them. “Quiet” highlights the differences between introverts and extroverts who, Cain says, have become idealized and even preferred in American culture. We spoke to Cain about her book and the quiet renaissance of introverts. Turns out introverts have much to offer, like their creativity and insight, even if they aren’t always shouting it from the rooftops.
Q&A with Susan Cain
What is the value of thinking about where a person falls on the introversion-extroversion scale?
The most important value is probably the self-awareness that you are the way you are and it’s okay to be the way you are. You can start organizing your life in ways that suit your temperament instead of what many introverts do, which is try to act like extroverts without even realizing that that’s what they’re doing. I often ask people: How would you truly spend your time if you really could spend your time exactly as you please? [Many people] would go to far fewer parties; they would go to far fewer meetings; they would schedule more walks alone by themselves. But I think we tend not to give ourselves the permission to do those things because there’s a sense that we’re supposed to be out there all the time.
Is there any danger in applying the labels “introvert” and “extrovert?” Could they become too limiting in terms of what people think they can do?
First of all, there’s no such thing as a total introvert or a total extrovert. We all can and should step outside our natural tendencies in the service of things that we love. I don’t think it’s a question of what you’re capable of; I think it’s more a question of what your preferences are. Many introverts are great public speakers, they’re great leaders, they’re great communicators, but they still have a need and a desire to spend more of their time in quieter ways. And that’s a piece of themselves that they need to honor.
I liked your discussion about how collaboration might not be the route to productivity for everyone. How do you think companies can arrange their workplaces to suit everybody’s different needs?
In terms of workplace design, there need to be different kinds of spaces: nooks and crannies for privacy, and then shared spaces where people can actually exchange ideas and collaborate. When it comes to creative processes or problem-solving, I think for introverts and extroverts alike the best process is a hybrid where you go off by yourself first just to think and then you come together as a group.
Do you think that romantic relationships between introverts and extroverts can work?
Absolutely they can work. The positive side of introvert-extrovert relationships is that you’re kind of yin and yang. There’s a sense that each person has what the other lacks and together you’re a greater whole. My husband’s an extrovert and I’m an introvert and it works really well. There are [conflicts] that these relationships get into again and again. There’s always the question of: Okay, as a couple, how much are we gonna’ go out and socialize? How much time does the introvert get [to themselves] when they come home from a day of work? But as long as you each understand where the other person’s coming from and see their needs as legitimate and as a temperamental preference, not as a sign that something’s wrong with them or a sign that they don’t care about you, I think the conflicts can be worked out.
What was the most exciting part of doing the research for this book?
One really amazing finding is we now know that there are introverts and extroverts in almost every single species in the animal kingdom. Like all the way down to the level of fruit flies! What we know is that each of these two types thrive better depending on what the circumstances are. It’s also illuminating because humans are the same way.
When you spoke at TED you said that there’s about to be dramatic change in terms of the way we think about introverts and extroverts. What do you think the future will be like for the American school system and workplace and how they treat introversion?
I think that we have a lot of work to do. With women’s groups, a lot of changes happened as a result of consciousness-raising; I think that’s where we are now with introverts. There are already a lot of people talking about moving away from constant group work. Open-office plans in companies are being rethought; people are starting to want to build in more space for individual work.
In the book you briefly mentioned that the Internet has changed the way introverts can connect with people.
The Internet gives introverts a chance to communicate without even leaving the house and that can be tremendously liberating. Introverts prefer to communicate in environments that are not overly stimulating, with a lot of stuff coming at them. So when you’re sitting in front of your screen that’s an inherently less stimulating situation. Many introverts say that they feel like they can express the “real me” online in ways that they might not be able to do face-to-face.
As someone who identifies as an introvert, do you feel that you do better communicating like this over the phone, or even over email, better than you would in person?
No, I like talking to people in person and I think I can communicate just as well in person. I think it’s probably less tiring for me in a way. [In person] you’re communicating on more channels, so it’s not just your words, it’s not just the expression in your voice; it’s also body language, things like that. For introverts the key is to preserve your social energy levels.